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Big Box Stores

I grew up going to neighborhood stores.  With just a short walk from my house, I could buy candy, Popsicles, ice cream bars and any other junk food with the excess quarters and nickels coming from a milk run for mom.  The store owner was the cashier who knew me by name.  Every merchant in the area knew my name simply because I would frequent their establishments so often with my mother or father.  I was touched, the day before my mother’s funeral, in 2005, when the local cleaners pressed and cleaned my clothes for free.  They did this because they are good people and my family patronized their business for years.  Community is a concept that would change right before my eyes with the growth in popularity of over-sized stores.  Big stores for me were chain grocery stores. As a teenager in Los Angeles, I remember when Costco came into being.  Costco was a warehouse-style store with isles big enough to fit small cars, shelves that seemed high enough to require scaffolding and food quantities that could feed families of 20.   Costco was multi-faceted because it also sold automotive supplies, furniture, books, videos, laser disks (DVD’s had not hit the market yet) and even lawn equipment.  One could leave their clothes to be laundered while picking up developed pictures from the photo mat.  All this could be done while eating a slice of pizza from the Costco restaurant and searching through the Costco clothing section.  It was fun for me to shop with mom at Costco because all the stuff I liked mom allowed me to put in the mammoth sized baskets.  I later learned that she allowed me to put what I wanted in the basket because everything was so inexpensive. Costco-like stores would become the norm and the neighborhood merchant would become obsolete.  When I moved to Alpharetta (a suburb of Atlanta, GA) in 2000, I could not help but notice how big the stores were.  Coming from California where glitz and glamour were a way of life, I was shocked to find that out in Georgia all the stores seemed bigger. It was as if Super Target and Wal-Mart went to Costco School.  I later found out that all of these stores fit into a category of stores called Big Box Stores.  It seemed Big Box Stores were popping up all over Atlanta and surrounding areas.  It was great.  My wife could go to one end and buy the kids school clothes while I hung out in the electronics section.  We usually met up in the grocery section.  These became family outings.  No more boring trips to the clothing store or complaints about my extended stays in electronics stores.  My wife had her space, the kids had their space and I had my electronics.  Life was beautiful.  My view changed while watching a television report on the local news.  People were protesting Wal-Mart.  I thought to myself why.

Mega – Church

Growing up in Los Angeles I went to a small church of about 200 people.  About 50 of those people were active in the ministry.  It was great.  Everyone in the church was like a family member.  I knew everyone’s name and everyone knew mine.  It seemed that the pastor knew everything about everybody.  There was a segment of Sunday morning church service reserved for announcements.  During this part of the church service a designated person read the church bulletin.  There was a segment for singing hymns called devotion. There were usually 2 to 3 different offerings that came between songs sung by a choir.  After all of this the pastor usually preached a 45-minute to 1-hour sermon.  If you tack on morning Sunday School and evening Baptist Training Union, the Sunday church experience was an all day affair.

In 1973 my brother did the unthinkable and joined Crenshaw Christian Center.  Like Costco, this was my first experience at, what would later be called Mega-Churches. This changed my view of church forever.  No church announcements.  Four-song Praise and Worship sets replaced long, drawn out, devotions. One song sung by the choir and One offering collected.  The sermon by the pastor, Fred Price, was timed to an exact hour. Church services were shorter.  The facilities were large.  Music always sounded professional like a recording.  The youth department had a separate wing.  It was astounding.  When I moved to Georgia it seemed all the churches were like Crenshaw.   Some churches were even larger.  I never knew there were so many big, beautiful, churches with great music departments and youth programs.  In talking to some of the locals and reading the news paper I noticed that not everyone thought this was a good thing and I thought to myself why.

Big Box Ministries

Big Box Stores (Wal Mart, Super Target, Costco etc.) build in thriving locations where customers support local businesses.  Big Box Stores often carry the merchandise or offer the services of more than one of the local businesses, making them a one-stop-shop (i.e. music, groceries, home furnishings, clothing etc.).   Big Box Stores strike up deals with vendors to carry large quantities of merchandise and in return the vendors sell to Big Box Store at a lower price.  As a hook, Big Box Stores offer services or conveniences to draw and keep customers.  The price markdowns in Big Box Stores allow them to sell merchandise at a lower price.  The services and conveniences create a dependability that is almost addictive. Unable to compete, local, specialized, businesses and boutiques die. Once this death occurs, the Big Box Store in the area closes and moves to another location forcing customers to go further to get the items and services they need that were once available in close proximity to their home.   I then understood the protests against Big Box Stores.

Like Big Box stores Mega Churches, boasting memberships of 1,000 to 30,000 members, have risen to dominate Christian culture.  These new Mega Churches offer more convenient service times, better child care, better youth and young adult programs, celebrity music staffs, appearances by popular preachers and singer, slick marketing and large, elaborate facilities.  As people flock to Mega Churches, local churches suffer and in some cases close.  Like local business and boutiques, local churches close due to lack of membership, qualified help and financial support not to mention outdated facilities.  Once a Mega Church’s membership and activities outgrow their current facility they often relocate to accommodate their rapid growth.  This relocation leaves the congregants with the burden of traveling further for the same services that cannot be offered by diminutive, undermanned local churches.   Also Mega Churches like Big Box stores become impersonal.  CEOs of Big Box stores become as popular if not more popular than their company brand.  Pastors in the same way become superstars much like Big Box store CEOs.  After observing all this occur I finally understood why Mega Churches were disliked.

One could argue that because of inflation, lower prices on quality items are necessary.  Big Box stores in this way help the community.  With this same philosophy one could argue that with a dearth of quality teachers and leaders, Mega Churches are necessary.  Where can balance be found?  Franchising is one solution.

Big Box stores expand through placing their franchise in other locations.  Mega Churches plant other churches, which is a form of franchising.  This practice goes back as far as the Book of Acts and in the Epistles of the Apostle Paul.  Paul went throughout Europe and Asia setting up churches and leaving them under the care of men he trained to become pastors.  Mega Church pastors have adopted this philosophy and began “planting” versions of their church in different areas.  Paul set up churches to proselytize.  Franchising is to build a larger consumer base in untapped areas. Some view “planting” as a band-aid solution because planting does not address the unique, individual needs existing in every neighborhood and community. In the case of New Birth (Lithonia, GA), the planted churches have become mini Mega Churches.  New Birth having 26,000 members, planted churches with 3000 – 5000 members across Georgia. At one time, local churches knew and had relationships with every store, merchant, school, team and park in the area.  Mega and Planted Church pastors in most cases have a corporate vision, with no community vision outside of outreach to the needy.  The Local church pastors knew the score to local high school games and acknowledged the players that attended their church.   Mega church pastors don’t have the time because their focus is on accommodating demand and growth.

Big Box stores don’t have the time to look at the individual needs of a community, or of the people in that community.  The connection between corporate executives and consumers is often done through demographic studies.

Mega Stores, Big Box Churches, what’s the difference?